SciTechBlog
May 11, 2010

Geek Out!: Stephen Hawking and five ways to travel in time

Posted: 01:31 PM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Stephen Hawking's new Discovery Channel series, "Into the Universe," aired again last night and continues into next week. In it, the famed cosmologist discusses the mathematical probability of aliens, the Big Bang and time travel. Hawking's theories on time travel in particular seem fairly optimistic - although "Back to the Future"-style DeLoreans are conspicuously absent. That will be the topic next week. Taking a cue from the show, here are five semi-practical models of time travel:

Barrel through a wormhole
If time itself is a dimension like length and height and width, then Hawking says the fabric of time contains imperfections we could take advantage of. A smooth billiards ball has microscopic crevices, and so does spacetime. We'd need to find a true "wormhole" and prop it open, and then head on through.

The caveat, of course, is that we'd be facing heavy radiation feedback concerns (a bit like the screeches you hear at rock concerts) and even without that problem, that we would create paradoxes by messing around with historical events in the past. For this reason, Hawking believes travel to the past may well be impossible.

Go near a black hole
It's simple: All we have to do is find a supermassive black hole and get into its orbit without being sucked into it. Hawking says time would slow down for the people in orbit relative to people elsewhere. Now to find a black hole ...

Go really, really fast
Hawking says if we can get close to the speed of light, a "cosmic speed limit" will kick in to prevent going any faster. Approaching roughly 186,000 miles per second, time will slow down for the traveler vs. the observer. When the traveler emerges, they will have jumped into the future. We just have to develop an engine that can go that fast. Don't try this on the Autobahn, folks.

Live on a space station
Turns out Cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev is said to hold the record for the most time traveled into the future: about 20 milliseconds. His cumulative experience aboard Russian space station Mir gave him an edge over the competition. Hawking discusses in his documentary how orbiting global positioning satellites must have their timekeeping adjusted every so often because of the relative time slowdown.

Become a Retronaut
This one might be a cop-out, but many scientists (including Hawking) argue that time travel to the past is paradoxical and potentially impossible. In lieu of a Wayback machine, we can turn to the work of Chris Wilds, who created a website about his experiments with being a being a Retronaut. That is, a person who travels into the past by exploring perceptions of time. Whether by looking at old pictures juxtaposed with new ones (which we experimented with at CNN iReport a few weeks ago) or hunting anachronisms, Wilds' site hints that time travel may be all in your head.

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Filed under: Astronomy • Space • television • universe


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April 22, 2010

Satellites to issue speeding tickets from space

Posted: 03:14 PM ET

From our content partner Mashable:

UK drivers had better stay under that speed limit, because the traffic authorities are watching… from outer space. According to The Telegraph, an American company called PIPS Technology has developed a system that uses two cameras on the ground and one mounted on a satellite in orbit to catch speeders.

The system - called “SpeedSpike” - figures your average speed between two points, captures an image of your license plate and reports you if you’re going faster than the law allows. Oh, and if you’re hoping Great Britain’s notoriously gray weather will save you, you’re out of luck; the system works even when it’s cloudy or dark.

SpeedSpike will be tested in two places: the London borough of Southwark, and along the A374 between Torpoint and Anthony in Cornwall. If the trial is successful, the tech may be used to enforce speed limits near schools, to reduce the need for speed bumps, and for “main road enforcement for traffic reduction.”

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Filed under: Space


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April 9, 2010

It's a bird, it's a plane - really!

Posted: 10:51 AM ET
Global Hawk in flight
Global Hawk in flight

Flying higher, farther and without a pilot.

NASA's Global Hawk plane can fly to altitudes of 60,000 feet – way above normal flight paths – and as far as nearly half way around the world. It does this completely automatically, without the aid of a pilot or controller.

The plane follows a preprogrammed flight path and can stay aloft for nearly 30 hours while staying in contact with NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center via satellites. The Global Hawk maiden voyage took it over the Pacific and Arctic oceans to study the atmosphere over those bodies of water.

Researchers hope that the plane's range and endurance will make it ideal to sample and measure greenhouse gases, ozone and air quality over a wide area in a short period of time.

"We can go to regions we couldn't reach or go to previously explored regions and study them for extended periods that are impossible with conventional planes," said David Fahey, co-mission scientist and research physicist.

Scientists expect the high altitude flights to let them measure dust, smoke and pollution that cross the Pacific from Asia and Siberia and affect U.S. air quality. The Global Hawk is scheduled to make four more flights this month over the Pacific and Arctic areas.

Global Hawks – obviously not retro-fitted with scientific sensors – are also used by the U.S. Air Force for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. They were recently used after the Haiti earthquakes to provide more than 3,600 images of affected areas to help with disaster relief.

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Filed under: Aviation • climate change • environment • greenhouse gas • NASA • Space


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April 6, 2010

Geek Out!: Fulfilling a geek dream - there for space shuttle launch

Posted: 11:45 AM ET
Space Shuttle Discovery
Space Shuttle Discovery

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

We were awake for more than twenty-four hours in the singular pursuit of one goal: We had a shuttle to catch.

The Space Shuttle Discovery. One of NASA's final shuttle missions blasted off from Kennedy Space Center yesterday morning at 6:21:25 EDT, just as the sun was edging towards daybreak - the last shuttle mission scheduled to blast off into night skies.

This mission and crew are special for a few reasons: it will mark the first time that four women are in orbit simultaneously. It will mark the first time that two Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronauts are in orbit at the same time. This is Discovery's second-to-last scheduled trip to space, and the last time that a Shuttle crew will comprise seven people. It is also the last time that a rookie will fly aboard the Shuttle.

The milestones are plentiful - like most Shuttle missions, NASA and its partners have made sure the 13-day flight will be nonstop activity.

But for our little crew of three, this launch was unique because it represented a geek dream realized: The three of us have been space enthusiasts, NASA supporters and star gazers for most of our lives. With only four (now three) scheduled launches remaining in NASA's Shuttle program, we were running out of chances to witness a launch in person.

And witness one we did. After weeks of delays due to cold weather and leaky-valve technical issues, Discovery was finally on the launch pad and ready to go. The countdown proceeded smoothly through the course of the night, sliding in and out of planned wait periods with nary a hint of a problem.

We watched the clock tick down, standing a few feet from those iconic yellow numbers. All told, we spent roughly seven hours at Kennedy Space Center, photographing the stars, the moon, the xenon-lit Shuttle and the people who had come to quite literally feel the earth move.

At T-3 seconds, we saw more than felt the three main engines light.

At T-0 we could see enormous clouds of vapor and smoke billowing beneath the Shuttle as Discovery lifted off the pad.

The sky brightened faster than any sunrise. And then, the roar: the ground-shaking, chest-thrumming bass announcement of several million pounds of thrust pushing seven people into orbit.

Accompanying it, the hundreds of shutter clicks as hundreds of photographers scrambled to get the perfect shot.

Then, just as swiftly as it began, it was over. In what felt like a split second, Discovery was out of sight, its thunderous roar fading quickly back to a quiet coastal dawn, leaving only a contrail that marked the sky.

The three of us kept moving, kept shooting, kept talking, completely astounded at the sheer force - physical and mental - that this agglomeration of engineering and ingenuity produced on this early Monday morning.

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Filed under: Geek Out! • NASA • Space


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February 4, 2010

NASA: Pluto is 'not simply a ball of ice and rock'

Posted: 03:19 PM ET

NASA released new photos today of everyone's favorite former planet: Pluto.

The space agency says the photos, which were taken in the early 2000s by the Hubble Space Telescope, are the "most detailed and dramatic images ever taken of the distant dwarf planet."

"The Hubble pictures confirm Pluto is a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes not simply a ball of ice and rock," NASA says in a news release.

But the new glamour shots won't be enough to get Pluto registered again as a planet.

The pictures come just as Pluto is heading into a new phase of its 248-year orbit around the sun, NASA says:

Pluto is unlike Earth, where the planet's tilt alone drives seasons. Pluto's seasons are asymmetric because of its elliptical orbit. Spring transitions to polar summer quickly in the northern hemisphere, because Pluto is moving faster along its orbit when it is closer to the Sun.

Space.com says new colors and features of Pluto came to light in the photos:

The surface appears reddish, yellowish, grayish in places, with a mysterious bright spot that is particularly puzzling to scientists.

Some of the colors revealed in the new pictures of Pluto are thought to result from ultraviolet radiation from the sun interacting with methane in the tenuous atmosphere of the dwarf planet. The bright spot apparent near the equator has been found in other observations to be unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost.

Pluto lost its status as our solar system's ninth planet in 2006 when an international group of scientists decided that it was too small and too distant to be considered a member of the Earth's solar-system family.

More from the National Academies:

Pluto is considerably smaller and more distant than the other planets in our solar system. Two-thirds the size of Earth's moon, Pluto's classification as a planet came under scrutiny when many objects of similar size and distance were discovered in the Kuiper Belt in the 1990s.

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Filed under: NASA • Space


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November 6, 2009

Baguette-toting bird stalls atom smasher

Posted: 05:31 PM ET

This is too weird: A bird reportedly has dropped a "bit of baguette" onto the world's largest atom smasher, causing the machine to short out for a period of time.

It's just the latest mishap for the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, which scientists plan to use to get insight into the universe's origins. The LHC, which has a 17-mile track to circulate protons and is located underground on the French-Swiss border outside Geneva, Switzerland, is the largest particle accelerator in the world and cost about $10 billion.

The LHC booted up in September 2008, but technical problems forced it to shut down shortly after its launch. When the mystery bird reportedly dropped a piece of bread onto the particle accelerator's outdoor machinery earlier this week, the device was not turned on, according to reports, and therefore did not suffer major damage.

Had the machine been activated, the baguette incident could have caused the LHC to go into shutdown mode, the UK's The Register reports. The Register quotes Dr. Mike Lamont, a worker at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (or CERN), as saying that "a bit of baguette" had been dropped on the LHC, possibly by a bird.

A call to CERN's press office was not immediately returned.

ZDNet writes that the baguette in question did not have a chocolate filling:

The [CERN] spokesperson said the bread, which was "naked and unfilled", had caused a short circuit when dropped on an electrical installation that supplies energy to the massive experiment. While the bird was unconfirmed as the definite culprit, it had been spotted beforehand near the substation carrying bread, said the spokesperson.

The avian accident has prompted a number of online parodies and jokes (this photo is my favorite). CNET UK, a CNN content partner, writes jokingly that it's clear the bird was French since it was carrying a baguette:

We're not ones for crude for national stereotyping, but the detail that the bird dropped a bit of baguette suggests this must have occurred on the French side of the LHC. It's unclear whether the bird was actually riding a bike, or indeed wearing onions and a beret.

A Discover blog exclaims: "Zut alors!"

And CrunchGear says the strange incident shows the LHC is "so abhorrent to nature that the universe is contriving to snuff it out."

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Filed under: Large Hadron Collider • science • Space • universe


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August 18, 2009

Will the Big Crunch follow the Big Bang?

Posted: 08:57 AM ET

The Big Crunch may sound like a slogan for crackers or potato chips, but it’s actually an astronomical theory with a gloomy twist.

We’ve all heard of the Big Bang, a widely accepted theory that proposes the entire universe began from a single point about 13.7 billion years ago and has been expanding ever since.

But will it expand forever? Or could it stop and reverse that process?

One possible fate of the universe is the Big Crunch, the idea that the cosmos could one day begin contracting and eventually collapse back on itself or return to a single point.

If it ever happens, this anti-Big Bang would take place so far in the future that Earth might even not exist anymore, according to experts writing for Cornell University’s Curious About Astronomy Web site.

But the experts also took a stab at what a contracting universe could look like to an observer billions of years into the future.

“As the present-day observable universe started to get really small, the observer would most likely see some of the things that happened in the early universe happen in reverse. Most notably, the temperature of the universe would eventually get so high that you could no longer have stable atoms, in which case the hypothetical observer wouldn't be able to hold himself together.”

Yikes. But fear not. It turns the expansion of the universe has been accelerating rather than slowing.

Astronomers believe that’s caused by a mysterious dark energy pulling galaxies apart, according to NASA.

“Dark energy is this idea that not only is the universe expanding, dark energy is actually making that expansion happen even faster,” said Marla Geha, as assistant professor of astronomy at Yale University. “The dark energy will actually continue the expansion of the universe forever, so there probably will not be a Big Crunch if we have the numbers right.”

But the continuous expansion would have other consequences. Over tens of billions of years, the galaxies that we see around us would get farther and farther away, making the universe more of a lonely place, Geha said.

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Filed under: Astronomy • NASA • Space


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July 20, 2009

Meet the strange moons of Mars

Posted: 08:00 AM ET

Famous for its reddish color, Mars has long fascinated astronomers, ordinary sky gazers and science-fiction writers.

But its strange, tiny moons also deserve plenty of attention, especially since one of them has been suggested as a way for humans to get to the planet itself.

“To reach Mars, we should use comets, asteroids and Mars’s moon Phobos as intermediate destinations. No giant leaps this time. More like a hop, skip and a jump,” Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, wrote recently in an article in Popular Mechanics. Read more about the moon vs. Mars debate

Phobos is one of two Martian moons, with Deimos keeping it company in space.

Just 13 miles across, Phobos orbits so close to Mars that it may be shattered by the Red Planet’s gravitational tidal forces in about 100 million years, according to NASA.

You can see its battered, pockmarked surface in the photo above, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter last year. The Stickney Crater, which takes up almost half its diameter, is on the lower right.

Some astronomy Web sites call Phobos potato-shaped and that’s a good way to describe it!

Think Phobos is small? Deimos is even tinier, at about 7.5 miles in diameter. If you were to stand on the surface of Mars, it would look light a bright star, NASA says.

And here’s a bit of mythology to add to your astronomy knowledge. You may know that Mars was named after the Roman god of war. So in keeping with the tone, Phobos (“Fear”) and Deimos (“Terror”) were named after the horses that pulled the chariot of Ares, the Greek god of war and the counterpart to Mars.

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Filed under: Astronomy • Mars • NASA • Space


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July 16, 2009

The forgotten almost-moon men

Posted: 02:13 PM ET

Only 12 men have had the honor of walking on the moon, but six astronauts were in charge of getting them there and bringing them home safely. These were the command service module pilots, whose job it was to circle the moon and return to Earth - without setting a foot on the lunar surface.

These six people are often overshadowed by the moonwalkers. Their stories are worth telling, though, especially in honor of the upcoming 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing.

The first CSM pilot is the most famous. Michael Collins flew on the Apollo 11 mission, carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon for the first lunar landing. He circled the orb for nearly a day in solitude. For 48 minutes out of each orbit he was out of radio contact with Earth.

In his autobiography, Collins wrote "this venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two." He also said he never felt lonely, but "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation."

Richard Gordon, commander of the Yankee Clipper – the Apollo 12 CSM, was the second to orbit the moon while others walked on the surface. While he circled, he mapped out potential landing sites for future missions. He was slated to walk on the moon in the Apollo 18 mission, but that mission was canceled.

Stuart Roosa spent 33 hours in orbit during Apollo 14. His skill as the CSM pilot was needed after initial attempts to dock with the lunar module failed.

Alfred Worden was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most isolated human being” while he was orbiting the moon during the Apollo 15 mission. When the Endeavour was at its greatest distance from the lunar crew, Worden was 2,235 miles away from any other human being.

Ken Mattingly is probably well known for his actions on the ground of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, but he finally did get to go to the moon for the Apollo 16 launch. Mattingly used instruments aboard Casper to map a stretch of the lunar surface all around its equator.

The final mission, Apollo 17, put Ronald Evans in control of the command module, America. Evans holds the record of more lunar time in orbit than anyone else: 147 hours, 48 minutes.

Each of these men spent countless days training next to their more-heralded moonwalker colleagues. Yet, while their capsule brethren actually touched another heavenly body, these brave astronauts could only stare out their window and marvel at the view.

- Larry Frum

Filed under: NASA • Space


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July 15, 2009

NASA to junk space station in 2016

Posted: 10:33 AM ET

After a decade of costly construction, the International Space Station is nearing completion. But NASA won't have long to enjoy the achievement.

According to an article from the Washington Post, NASA space station program manager Michael T. Suffredini raised eyebrows when, at a public hearing last month, he declared flatly that NASA plans to de-orbit the station in 2016.

That means the $100 billion research facility, which has been circling Earth since 1998, will ultimately burst into flames as it reenters the Earth's atmosphere and crashes into the Pacific Ocean.

Budget constraints and the lack of a shuttle program, which is set to retire in 2010, may have persuaded NASA to end the space station program.

The Washington Post explains:

The rap on the space station has always been that it was built primarily to give the space shuttle somewhere to go. Now, with the shuttle being retired at the end of 2010, the station is on the spot. U.S. astronauts will be able to reach the station only by getting rides on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

There is no official lobbying to extend the mission, but NASA's plans have met with criticism. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) argues, "If we've spent a hundred billion dollars, I don't think we want to shut it down in 2015."

While speaking to a panel charged by the Obama administration with reviewing the entire human spaceflight program, Nelson affirmed, "My opinion is it would be a travesty to de-orbit this thing... If we get rid of this darned thing in 2015, we're going to cede our leadership in human exploration."

What do you feel should be done with the International Space Station? Does the initial $100 billion investment justify extending the program, or should we simply cut our losses and look toward a new future of space exploration?

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Filed under: Astronomy • International Space Station • NASA • science • Space


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